Ambrosia of the Southern Gods
When I was growing up in Georgia, we nearly always had ambrosia fruit salad at Thanksgiving and Christmas. This holiday dessert had a magical quality to it, particularly since my mother was fond of saying it was the food of the gods (and goddesses).
Ambrosia is often portrayed in Greek myth as conferring immortality to those who eat it. "It was brought to the gods in Olympus by doves, so it may have been thought of in the Homeric tradition as a kind of divine exhalation of the Earth," according to Wikipedia's citation of the ancient tale.
At my grandparents home in Moultrie, GA, as well as at our home in Decatur, GA, the making of the ambrosia fruit salad, popular at the time in many areas of the South, was a ritual that my brother and sister and I all took part in.
We would start by peeling the fresh oranges, separating them by sections, and then peeling the section coverings themselves away to leave only the inner fruit slices that we placed into a bowl. It was meticulous work. My sister Kitty (pictured above, dressed as a young goddess) was particularly adept at it.
After that, we got to the fun part -- we would take a whole coconut, drill a hole in one of the eyes with a corkscrew, and pour out the coconut milk and drink it. Then we would get a hammer, shatter the coconut into pieces, dig the shell away, and grate the coconut into flakes. It was hard then to find a coconut in the grocery store except a few times a year, so they were a rare treat.
It may be hard to believe these days, but it was also difficult back then to find citrus fruit before November when the first Florida trees grew ripe. Shipments from California and Arizona took too long, and oranges could rot before they made it to places like Georgia. So it's no wonder that ambrosia fruit salad was -- and perhaps still is -- considered a Thanksgiving or Christmas treat in pockets of the South.
When my sister Kitty mixed together all of the ingredients in a glass bowl, the orange-reddish tint and the coconut flakes like snow brightened our table together. It was a gleaming moment, and perhaps we thought of ourselves as immortal, as the ambrosia transported us from one fleeting holiday to the next, year by year.
AMBROSIA FRUIT SALAD
1 dozen medium oranges, peeled, sectioned and with the pulp removed
1 small jar maraschino cherries with juice
1 20-ounce can pineapple chunks, drained and diced
1 grated coconut
1 tablespoon of cane sugar
1 cup sour cream (Totally optional. I have my reservations about adding this ingredient, but some folks like it. )
Stir the ingredients together in a large glass serving bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Serve cold, preferably in cordial or parfait glasses before the main dessert.
Buttermilk biscuit lovers in the South are divided by which of three key ingredient choices – shortening, butter or lard – they prefer. The preferences are not confined to a particular state or even a particular city. Even within families, there are differences as to whether shortening is superior, or butter or lard. Each one tastes a bit different. Pick one and prepare to defend your choice.
Here are three buttermilk biscuit recipes we like, each baked a different way:
BUTTERMILK BISCUITS (WITH SHORTENING)
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons shortening
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Place the flour, salt and baking soda in a sifter, and sift into a large bowl. Mix in the shortening with fingers or chop it in with a spoon. Add buttermilk and stir just enough to make an even dough. Lift the dough onto a floured cutting board and fold it over enough to make it smooth. Roll (using a floured rolling pin) or pat out the dough to a one-half inch thickness. Cut into round biscuit shapes, place them on an ungreased baking sheet, and bake in the oven for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown. This recipe is from Georgia.
BUTTERMILK BISCUITS (WITH BUTTER)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 pound chilled butter
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Stir together the flour, salt and baking powder into a large bowl. Mix in the butter with fingers until the pieces are small. Add buttermilk and long just enough to make an even dough. Lift the dough onto a cutting board, and fold it over two or three times to make it smooth. Roll (using a floured rolling pin) or pat out the dough to a one-half inch thickness. Cut into round biscuit shapes using a biscuit cutter or the rim of a small glass. Place the raw biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet, and bake in the oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown. This recipe is from Alabama.
BUTTERMILK BISCUITS (WITH LARD)
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 1/2 tablespoons lard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Sift the flour together with the salt, baking soda and baking power into a large bowl. Work in the lard thoroughly with fingers into the dry mixture. Stir in the buttermilk until it forms a dough. Lift the dough onto a floured cutting board and fold it over gently twice. Use a floured roller to roll dough out to 1/2 inch thickness. Use a biscuit cutter to make the rounds, and place the raw biscuit on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until golden brown. This recipe is from Tennessee.
Manchester Farms Roasted Quail
Manchester Farms of Columbia, SC, contributed this excellent recipe for one of North America’s native bird species – the quail. Once mostly associated with plantation hunting, quail have found a wider audience in recent years in grocery stores and restaurants.
As the nation’s old producer of quail, Manchester Farms is a family owned business that embraces the new accessibility of quail. The company was launched in the 1970s on a picnic table in the backyard of founder Bill Odom, where he dressed the spare birds himself.
Now the second generation of the family, including energetic daughter Brittney Miller, has made Manchester Farms a much bigger enterprise.
“People have childhood memories of quail being served with grits at Christmas,” Brittney told The State newspaper in Columbia. “The quail used to cost three times the cost of beef. Nowadays, the price is less than beef…What used to be fine dining is now common place.”
There are multiple ways to enjoy quail, a smaller cousin of the pheasant. They are versatile and easy to cook; since they are smaller than a chicken (about 4-5 ounces each), they don’t take as long in the oven. Traditional ways to cook them include wrapping quail in bacon and roasting them, or dipping them in flour and buttermilk before frying.
We especially like the recipe below, directly from Manchester Farms. (See the guest category on the Other Products lineup of this website if you're ready to try some quail):
Oven Roasted Quail With Lime Glaze
1. 4 raw quail (about 1 pound in weight)
2. All purpose flour for dredging
3. Salt and pepper to taste
4. 1½ tablespoon bacon drippings
5. 2 tablespoons lime juice
6. 4 tablespoons maple syrup. Honey, or agave
1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
2. Lightly dredge quail in flour, then lightly salt and pepper.
3. In a medium, ovenproof skillet, heat bacon drippings, then pan fry quail over medium heat, skin side down, for 3 minutes.
4. Turn over, then fry for an additional 3 minutes. Pour lime juice and maple syrup into the bottom of the skillet from the side, not over the quail.
5. Transfer to the oven, and roast for 5 minutes.
6. Remove, cut each quail in half, then serve immediately, pouring the maple lime glaze over the top.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2017 Manchester Farms All Rights Reserved
Cajun Maque Choux
Maque choux (pronounced similar to "mack-chew") is a Cajun dish similar to succotash, with influences from both Creole and American Indian cooking.
The principal ingredient is corn, accompanied by onion & garlic, bell pepper, celery and sometimes tomatoes. We saute the vegetables in bacon drippings the old way, although modern renderings of maque choux often use vegetable oil or butter instead.
3 slices of bacon
1 20-ounce package of frozen corn, or the kernels sliced from 10 ears of fresh corn
1 cup onion
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 cup red bell pepper
1/2 cup celery
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon mild cayenne pepper sauce
1/2 cup chicken broth
Cook the bacon over medium heat in a large saucepan or skillet, turning until crisp on both sides. Drain on paper towels, let cool, crumble pieces and set aside. Re-heat the drippings, and add the onion, garlic, bell pepper, celery, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, sugar, parsley, and thyme. Stir to coat ingredients, and cook 4-6 minutes until wilted. Add the corn, stir, and cook an additional 5 minutes. Add the cayenne pepper sauce and chicken broth, bring to a rapid boil, cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer about 15 minutes until the broth is mostly evaporated. Stir in crumbled bacon, let sit covered for another minute or two, and serve hot.
Shrimpers In the Stream
Few dishes are as subtle as shrimp – easy to catch, easy to clean, and they can be cooked very fast. They are forgiving of most other ingredients, and absorb other flavors easily. Early in my newspaper career, I spent a day on a working shrimp boat out of Beaufort, SC to write a slice-of-life feature story. We left before dawn on a Sunday, listened to a black evangelical church service with Reverend Ike on the radio, rolling across the waves in the darkness. We ate boiled shrimp for breakfast. We had boiled shrimp for lunch, too.
I remember writing about “shrimpers in the Stream,” impressed that the captain and his silent mate lived in the moment, trailed always by pin-wheeling gulls and dolphins in their spare wooden boat, month after month. Whenever the test nets showed promise, the two would hoist the big nets in and dump the brown and white shrimp on the rear deck, the sparkling catch like sudden money in their pockets. Then they would wind up the cable, swing the outriggers, and again the nets would fall away, away… a comforting monotony repeated the day long.
In the afternoon, when we were still about a half-mile from port and a half-mile from land on a forgiving tide, the mate jumped over the side and began to swim for shore. Puzzled, I asked the captain why. The captain said the mate did that most days, because we were going past his house and he could get home sooner that way.
When you live in the moment, perhaps days that go on forever can seem a little bit on the longish side.
GULF PANHANDLE SHRIMP
2 pounds clean raw shrimp
1 stick butter
2 cups mushrooms (fresh or canned)
1/3 cup diced onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup sour cream
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon chopped parsley, for garnish
Melt butter in a large saucepan and saute the shrimp, mushrooms, garlic and onion for about 5 minutes over medium-high heat, until the shrimp turn a definite orange-pink. Stir in the flour, mixing it well. Stir in the liquids and blend until the sauce thickens a bit, bringing to a slow simmer. Stir in the sour cream and heat, bringing again to a slow simmer but do not boil. Serve in a rice ring embellished on top with the parsley. Serves 4-6 people.
Are cheese straws appetizers or dessert? We think they are a savory accompaniment to either end of the meal. Cheese straws are also a nice touch with afternoon tea. It’s hard to go wrong with this traditional favorite that is found at the beginning of many Southern cookbooks.
1/2 pound extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 stick butter, softened
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix the cheese, butter, flour, salt and cayenne into a dough. If the dough doesn’t bind, add a sprinkle of water. Lift onto a floured cutting board and, using hands, shape into large pressed ball. Begin to flatten using the heels of your hands. Using a floured rolling pin, roll into thin layer about 1/3 inch thick. Cut into long, thin strips. (Alternative: squeeze the dough through a cookie press to make long, thin strips.) Then cut the strips to desired length; six inches is about right. Place the strips on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for about 20 minutes to desired crispness. Let them cool on the baking sheet, then use a spatula to move them to a serving plate. Optional garnish: a sprinkle of paprika or salt over the lot. An optional final touch is a drop of hot sauce on a cheese straw when eating it.
SouthernAirs developed some of these recipes, aiming as always for authenticity. Others are on loan from cited friends and relatives, or from authoritative sources with permission.